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tv   Dateline NBC  NBC  December 2, 2013 3:20am-4:01am EST

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here now, some of this
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week's images to remember. i did love the guy on twitter pour me coffee who wrote, good job today, sports. >> i'm still shell shocked. >> we're not talking about any more reports because we're running out of time. but you're here with first read sunday. a lot to look forward to in the week ahead. surely they can get a budget deal with everything going so well on health care. >> on december 13, house republican paul ryan when it comes to the budget, nancy
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pelosi, they have to come up with a top line number that they're agreeing to saying in order to avoid a shutdown in january. remember, we ran out of funding in january, so december 13 is when they have to come up with this line, and i don't want to get into sequester and all these issues, but it has come to just this very small agreement. i think they will. democrats have a little leverage here, david, because republicans don't want the story to get away from health care, so democrats could use that to get a little more of their way. >> as we get into 2014, the election year, do the republicans have a shot in the senate? >> i think they door, but there one more big retirement we're looking at, thad from mississippi. are there some democrats that just don't like it in the senate? you always hear mark wariner doesn't like it. there's no sign he's going to retire.
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does lindsey graham get all these challenges from the right? that is the decision we're trying to find out. the big takeaway, no matter what happens in 2014, the senate is getting more conservative, period. >> we'll get into a discussion on foreign policy, starting with this healafghanistan deadline. >> karzai won't sign this deal. susan rice went over to save it and she couldn't save it with the president. they're saying, what's going on? i thought you agreed to this whole deal. does the president himself have to get this done? they can't seem it get this done by the end of the year. >> here and reporting over the weekend, president rouhani in iran saying, we're going to enrich uranium. is there any reason to think that iran gives up its nuclear option? >> no. iran is now cementing that.
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rouhani went on an interview with the sentinel times, and this is creating big problems with iran's neighbors. they all gave up their right to enrich and the saudis already paid for a nuclear program. pakistan, all they have to do is call that debt in and say, send it over. proliferation is a real threat, but the question from the white house is, what are the options? >> isn't it a question, too, about who gets to decide about israel having its own nuclear capacity? does the united states have the ability to direct that? >> no, but our policy should be those who have it should keep it and those who don't shouldn't get it. that's the root of stability in the middle east and we're losing that. the problem with iran is it's not like negotiating with the soviets in the '80ls. the iranians still believe in the resolution. they still have that religious ferv fervor. that's why it's dangerous. they have religious fervor combined with nuclear weapons.
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it's just bad. >> you've got issues like afghanistan, but principally iran, that could become an even larger issue here in his second term, the president's second term, that could crowd out these other issues. does it concern you? >> it really doesn't concern me, because underneath all that, americans are war weary. i think it was very clear in 2008, 2012. people want other options on the table. so, you know, what is your other option? you have to come up with something else because there is no tolerance for us to enter into another war. >> what about what's happening with china? give me a brief primer on that. the president is talking about a pivot to asia and now you have china not so comfortable with that, flexing its muscles in east china. >> there is threatening. china declaring ownership over these uninhabited islands. it's a direct challenge to japan. the u.s. says it will stand by japan. the vice president is going to
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tokyo on a previously planned trip arriving tomorrow and then on to china. we stand with japan, we're sending our b-52s but we're warning commercial aviation to stay out of that zone without properly warning the chinese. we don't want to recognize china's unilateral demand that it owns this disputed territory, and a confrontation could ensue. >> china will assert its importance, yet diplomatically, militarily, even perhaps economically in 2014, it may not be the u.s.' equal on these questions. >> it's really a psychological problem. china is an extreme inferiority complex. it's like a lot of people in washington, actually. how do you deal with someone like that? my view is you just embrace them and keep them in the order. a constant embrace. >> we're going to leave it there. thank you all for the discussion today. appreciate it very much. that is it for us today. we'll be back next week, in new york next week.
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if it's sunday it's "meet the press." finally, we h is free. >> oh, my god. oh. >> i love you. >> tonight, go inside ryan ferguson's journey from prison to a new life. >> it's very strange. it's surreal. >> it's a story "dateline" has followed for years. a young college student accused of a crime he swore he didn't
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commit. >> so scary that this can actually happen to someone. >> he was convicted of a halloween night murder. there were fingerprints, foot prints, strands of hair, but here's the thing, none of it matched his. so why did he end up in prison? that's the question that still haunts -- >> i lied. i said i remembered things i didn't remember. >> locked behind bars for almost a decade. >> everything you love has been taken from you. >> now, the ending he's been dreaming of. >> ryan! >> the reunion with grandparents he was afraid he would never see again. back with his family in the place he loves. i'm lester holt, and this is "dateline." here's keith morrison with the story of the wrong man. >> no one knows how many there
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are. sprinkled through the population of america's bursting prisons, the nbt, the falsely convicted. the tiny percentage who have hope, most with names we'll never know. but sometimes, rarely, we learn their stories. >> ryan ferguson will soon be a free man. >> like the one about ryan ferguson, the young man in the news recently. >> for a missouri man whose murder conviction has now been overturned. >> ryan ferguson is now a free man. his conviction wiped clean. >> easy, you would think, to hear the news, show he's innocent. out he comes. but that, as you're about to see, isn't how it works in 21st century america. ryan ferguson has been a preoccupation here at "dateline" for years. a prison here on no more's victim road, our familiar destination. >> gave you what, how many
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years? >> 40 years. >> tonight we'll show you the inside story of his long saga and how he went from college student to convicted murderer to prisoner and, finally, the tourist in his own hometown. >> you recognize your town? >> i do recognize it but i always wondered was this particular building over here was, you know. i see it on tv a lot. >> it's been a trip all right. sort of trip that on the wrong night at the wrong place, could happen to almost anyone. this is the cautionary tale of what happened to him. easy to get convicted of something. >> absolutely. >> hard to get out again. >> incredibly difficult. >> the night back when it all began was a rare combination, halloween under a full moon. it was 2001. a college town, columbia, missouri. ryan ferguson and chuck erickson, both at 17, considerably underage, had gained entry to a college bar, a
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hangout during the by george. >> it's pretty young to be able to get into a collelub. >> it's a college town, university. that's the way everybody lives in college town. everybody wants to be in the mix, yeah. >> it was ryan's older sister kelly that helped sneak him? >> i remember seeing ryan and chuck one time in there. ryan was talking to a fa mink go dressed girl who was very tall. they seemed to be having lots of fun. >> outside rocket's music carried through empty streets until closing time, 1:30 a.m. four blocks away it was nearly quitting time at the local paper, the "columbia daily tribune." he headed to his car after a long day at work. it was just about 2:30 when two night janitors from the paper called 911. >> 911, what is your emergency? >> we need someone here at the "columbia daily tribune." >> the "columbia daily tribune" was suddenly at the deadly
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center of the biggest one in town. >> the sports editor laying on the ground in a pool of blood. >> it just rocks you back on your heels. >> manager editor jim robertson got the call. his friend, heidi, the beloved sports editor, was dead. >> we were in shock. the whole newsroom, the whole building was in shock because everybody knew ken. >> it wasn't pretty, murder never is. somebody smashed kent's head, maybe with something like a tire iron and then strangled him. investigators found fingerprints on his car and in the victim's hand, strands of hair which he must surely have pulled from the head of his killer or perhaps two killers? in that call to 911 those night custodians reported this. >> two guys in the area. >> were they white or black? >> white. i would cia 19, 20s. >> do you remember any kind of description at all on these guys? >> i don't think -- i don't think so. they were close to six feet,
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thin. one of them had blond hair. really, really short blond hair. >> a trail of bloody footprints, two sets of footprints, led from the parking lot toward a college dorm a few blocks away. but a search there turned up nobody suspicious. ditto for this composite sketch based on the janitor's descriptions. it's like a pair of ghosts at halloween. >> in columbia, i don't think anybody could have gotten around and not heard about it. >> this is leslie, ryan's mother. >> when you live in a town and there's been a murder and they don't know who committed the murder, you're wondering, you know, is this person still out there? >> but, life goes on. ryan went to college. chuck struggled, booze, drugs, the usual cocktail of trouble. and then two years after kent's murder, the "tribune" ran an anniversary story printed what details were known all over again. and a couple of months later,
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chuck was in the sauce and he ran into ryan home from college for the holidays. >> he says, hey, man, remember hanging out on halloween a couple years back going to the club? yeah. he said, do you know if i had anything to do with that crime that was committed against this guy who was killed. and at that point, you know, i'm kind of freaked out. it was night. i'm outside. it's passed midnight. and this guy is talking about do i know if he's involved in a murder. >> ryan shook it off. he said, had to be chuck's idea, a morbid joke. but it wasn't. chuck told other friends about his weird dream-like notion. and before long, someone took him seriously and called the police. >> you know the reporter at the "tribune" that was murdered and no one found out who it was? >> uh-huh. >> i know what happened and i know the murderer. >> and a dead case came roaring back to life.
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what happened next? now, that's where the real mystery lies. when we come back, you'll hear two very different stories about that night. one from chuck erickson -- >> i remember seeing ryan huddling over this guy. i think i asked him if he was dead. ryan said, yes, he was dead. >> another from ryan ferguson. >> i had nothing to do with this whatsoever. the arteries of your dishwasher are constantly clogging up
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for two years had come up empty. not one solid lead in the kent heithholt murder and now was this kid, so they've been told, who knew the whole story, chapter and verse. >> let's go it just one more time, okay? >> they brought chuck erickson in for questioning but in the chair he went all vague on them. >> it's just so foggy. >> so, was he backing out? >> i could just be sitting here advocating all of this and not know. like i don't know. i don't. >> but they talked.
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there are ways to ask questions. during a long conversation chuck seemed to remember a whole lot of things, detailed things. >> okay. did you see blood coming from him? >> yeah. >> okay. >> the motive, he said, was robbery, money to buy more drinks back at the bar. >> is this at closing time? >> this was before that. >> okay. >> it made perfect sense a fair-skinned teenager who went out drinking a few blocks from the newspaper. but remember, the custodian saw two young men from the scene and they tracked two bloody footprints. and here it was, ryan ferguson's fate was sealed. >> i remember seeing ryan hovering over this guy. >> things began happening very, very fast. ryan, remember, was at college, in a different town.
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and was puzzled, he said, when a strange van followed him home from school. it was when he pulled up to his door that he was surrounded by police. >> what happened when you got to the police department? >> they tell me they're arresting me on suspicion of a murder. and at that point i'm just like, oh, my goodness, this is -- this is absurd. >> they asked about that halloween and ryan told detectives he left the bar with chuck at closing time, 1:30 a.m., and then dropped chuck off at his house, went home, and went to bed. >> i knew that i had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever. >> but even as he sat here in an interrogation room denying he had anything to do with the murder, the news of his arrest was on tv. >> there is a big break tonight in the murder of former columbia "tribune" sports editor kent heitholt. >> ryan's father got the news from a reporter and a friend watching tv called leslie. >> my first reaction was just, i said, well, it's not our ryan.
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it has to be another ryan ferguson. >> impossible, not sweet, loving, loveable ryan. not a violent bone in that boy's body, said his father bill. >> he didn't have that mentality. all of a sudden for him to be accuse of a heinous murder is beyond comprehension. >> you have the right to remain silent. >> but just like that, ryan ferguson slipped from care free college student to the town's most heinous murder suspect and still, he failed to understand what was in store. as he waited eagerly for his trial, convinced a jury would see that he was telling the truth, and chuck was clearly confused. >> isn't it possible that you did have enough to drink that you would repressed your own memories, that you're in a fog, you didn't know what you had done? >> absolutely not. absolutely not. >> are you sure of that now, ryan? >> absolutely. no doubt in my mind. i know exactly what i did that night. >> chuck's fate was determined
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quickly. he took a plea deal, 25 years in exchange for agreeing to testify against ryan. and that's what he did. at ryan's trial in 2005 chuck reenacted what he said they did to poor kent heitholt. hit him on the head with a tool from ryan's car and then ryan strangled him with a belt. >> he had his foot on his back, on the victim's back. and he's pulling up on the belt like this. >> strangled him to death. >> the prosecutor didn't present dna or fingerprint evidence linking ryan to the bloody scene but perhaps he didn't have to because he had chuck. and he had this man. his name -- >> jerry trump. >> might want to remember that name. jerry trump is one of the janitors who called 911 the night of the murder, the man who reported seeing two young men lurking near the victim's car.
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>> do you remember any kind of description at all on these guys? >> i don't think -- i don't know. they were close to six feet. >> at the time of the killing, trump told police he wasn't sure he would be able to pick out a suspect. but now in court, his memory had improved. >> would you point to that individual or individuals, please? >> yes. >> ryan took the stand in his own defense, a ringing and determined denial. >> did you go to the "tribune" parking lot? >> no. >> did you see kent h,itholt anywhere? >> no. >> did you participate in this murder. >> no. >> how could a jury believe otherwise, he thought? there was evidence at the crime scene, after all, footprints, fingerprints, the hair in the victim's hand and none of it matched ryan. it was a friday evening when the jury went out. and that same friday evening when they came back, a brisk pre-weekend deliberation. >> we the jury find defendant ryan william ferguson guilty of
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murder in the second degree. >> he didn't show much on the outside, but now finally he understood what had happened to him. the sentence was 40 years. and the heitholt's felt they were getting that thing people call closure. >> i'm glad that finally i can remember him as just my dad and someone that was loved by everyone. >> kent heitholt's paper "the tribune" put the story to bed, perhaps for good. but ryan's family felt the polar opposite of relief. the indulgent sister who sneaked him into the bar wrestle with debilitating remorse. >> of course, i felt very guilty because not only was he down there because of me but i also got him into a bar under age. so it just looks really bad. >> and ryan's parents slipped into a world in which life did not make sense at all. >> you almost feel like you're stepping back from yourself. >> yeah. >> and you're watching other
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people, yourself, going through this because it can't really be your life. it can't be you going through this. but no one in this case was about to give up. ryan's dad fights to prove his innocence and finds a witness with a new story. >> i said, so, the person you saw, was that ryan ferguson? she goes, no, it was not. >> when "dateline" continues.
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the arrest, the trial, the verdict. but now a convicted murderer at 21, ryan ferguson was, as they say, down for a very long time. >> they gaye you, what, how many years? >> 40 years. >> 40 years. >> 40 years. >> life was on hold for his stunned family.
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>> the whole thing is just so scary to me, that this can actually happen to someone. >> and how do you get over a thing like that? i mean -- >> you don't get over it. you get dizzy. that's what we did. we're not over it. we're just busy. >> busy from that day forth trying to prove what was plainly obvious to them, that ryan was innocent. his dad, bill, was certain there was evidence out there, if only he could find it. >> one little piece of information could break it? >> make a big difference. >> it was often nighttime when bill ferguson wandered through columbia's downtown, returning to the neighborhood where it happened. puds r puzzling out clues. >> what is it about this place that tells you your son didn't do it? >> well, it's not so much this place. it's what happened to this place. the bar closed at 1:30. >> why would ryan and chuck commit murder and robbery after 2:00 a.m. to go back to a bar that had been closed for an hour? and there was something else that kept nagging at bill, that 911 call the night of the
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murder. >> we need someone here at the "columbia daily tribune." >> only the male janitor identified ryan. what about the woman on the 911 tape? she testified, too, but on the stand, she wasn't asked to point out ryan. >> i became very suspicious. i'm saying, wait a second, she's a witness. >> bill tracked her down and, here was the kind of bingo bill was looking for. >> i said, so, the person you saw, the person you did the composite of, was that ryan ferguson? she goes, no, that was not. i said, was it chuck erickson? she said, no, it was not. >> once more, she said, she told the prosecutor years earlier, before the trial. with that new information ryan fou filed an appeal and his dad was hopeful. >> we just know if we could ever get in the courtroom and present the evidence, well, ryan will be found innocent. >> as the fergusons were about to find out, for the first but not last time, overturning a
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murder conviction is a very difficult thing to do. the appeal was denied. that new story from the janitor deemed not credible. but give up? no. even when they ran through their life savings, even when a raft of legal appeals went nowhere. >> every time they come back and they deny any motion or they deny any appeal, you know, you just have taken another two or three years of my life for nothing. >> and still, nearly four decades to go. >> if you have to serve that, you come out a senior citizen if you're still alive. >> unfortunately. but at the end of the day you never know what's going to happen. >> well, you don't, do you? just when ryan seemed to be almost out of options all together, an attorney named kat tlooen zelner agreed to take a look at the case. she met with ryan and decided to take it on.
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pro bono. >> nothing as riveting of this, when the trial has been lost, everything's been lost and you've got someone who is innocent. it's like the ultimate chal lech, i think. >> what made you think this person definite lly innocent? >> it was really ryan. it was really my interaction with them. >> zelner has won the release of 15 men wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. but this, she had never seen anything like it. because in this strange case, she thought, there were two innocent men, ryan and chuck, his accuser, a confused young man, but not a killer. >> what was put on at this trial was a completely fabricated case and the reason it worked was because the jury could not understand why someone would confess to a crime they didn't commit and then take a 25-year sentence. >> and a verdict rendered by a
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jury of one's peers is, it's almost secret, zelner would have to find new information that the jurors could not have heard, or show that the prosecution of the case was not fair. she had just begun investigating when a gift arrived. sort of thing an attorney can only dream about. it was a letter, not to her, to ryan. >> i get this letter and it's from charles erickson. i'm like, what could this possibly say. >> oh, now, this, this could change everything. just maybe not in the way anyone expected. coming up -- >> i lied and said i remembered things i didn't remember. >> chuck erickson is back on the stand, but he's not the only one who has changed his story. >> i'd like to have forgiveness from ryan and his family.
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it is monday morning. here is what is coming up on "early today." investigators begin rounding up evidence from sunday's deadly commuter rail crash near new york city. as we hear some of those on board. >> it seems like it was going pretty fast. i looked at my two -- i screamed at my two friends that were going over. i couldn't believe it. i was in shock. new details into the investigation into that fiery car crash that killed "fast & furious" paul walker. plus good news and bad news for retailers. a minnesota man pays the price for making it


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